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On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).

Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.


The Deadliest Earthquake You Don’t Know About

On this day in 1556, the deadliest earthquake on record struck Shaanxi Province, China, killing around 830,000 people. Given that it was the 16th century, virtually no one outside the Ming Dynasty knew that such a disaster had occurred. It goes to show how much technology and mass media have given us an amplified sense that the world is more catastrophic and violent than ever before.

Indeed, the various wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes resulted in over 15 million deaths across three centuries; the Mongol conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries killed 30-50 million people; the conflict between the Qing and Ming dynasties claimed 25 million lives; the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs had a similar death toll.

All these unfathomably awful things happened with scarcely anyone outside the respective regions knowing anything about them. Imagine if wars of these scale happened now, in light of how upsetting comparatively smaller conflicts like the Syrian Civil War or the ISIS insurgency are. How would the world react to something on the scale of Shaanxi? (I suspect we would be too numb to be moved, due in no small part to the over-exposure and amplification mentioned earlier.)

What are your thoughts?

The World’s First Film Screening

On this day in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière used their patented cinematograph in Paris to hold the first film screening in history. It consisted of ten short films, each an average of fifty seconds.

The Lumières went on tour with the cinematographe the following year, visiting Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York City, and Buenos Aires. Their films were also shown in Egypt.

Ironically, despite arguably being the world’s first filmmakers, the brothers stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and subsequently went on to focus on color photography (in which they also broke much ground).

Below is the world’s first movie poster, advertising one of the brothers’ comedies, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the first comedic film and the first film to portray a fictional story.



Map: Internet Prices Around the World

What do Moldova, Tunisia, Russia, Iran, and  Kazakhstan have in common? Apparently, these disparate (and not particularly prosperous) countries have some of the cheapest broadband Internet in the world, with an average package cost of less than $20 a month.

By contrast, citizens of the West African nation of Burkina Faso top the list with the most expensive Internet, paying an an average of $924 for a monthly broadband package. Folks living in Namibia, Papua New Guinea, and Haiti far slightly better, but still need to shell out a few hundred dollars for the typical broadband package.

Americans are in the middle range, paying around $66 for the average broadband service; our neighbors to the north and south pay about $54 and $26, respectively.

These results are from a joint study by two British consultancies, which analyzed over 3,500 broadband packages worldwide from August 18 to October 12 of 2017. You can read the results here, which have been helpfully visualized by HowMuch.Net.


See here for a more detailed visual breakdown by region and price.

The results show an interesting and often unexpected mix of cheapest and most expensive. Who would have thought that the likes of, say, Iran and the former Soviet Union would offer world-beating Internet access? Or that some African countries outperform far wealthier and more digitally connected nations?

Iran offers the world’s cheapest broadband, with an average cost of USD 5.37 per month. Burkina Faso is the most expensive, with an average package price of USD 954.54.

Six of the top ten cheapest countries in the world are found in the former USSR (Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS), including the Russian Federation itself.

Within Western Europe Italy is the cheapest with an average package price of USD 28.89 per month, followed by Germany (USD 34.07), Denmark (USD 35.90) and France (USD 36.34). The UK came in 8th cheapest out of 28, with an average package price of USD 40.52 per month.

In the Near East region, war-ravaged Syria came in cheapest with an average monthly price of USD 12.15 per month (and ranked fifth overall), with Saudi Arabia (USD 84.03), Bahrain (USD 104.93), Oman (USD 147.87), Qatar (USD 149.41) and the United Arab Emirates (USD 155.17) providing the most expensive connectivity in the region.

Iran is the cheapest in Asia (as well as cheapest globally) with an average package price of USD 5.37 per month, followed by Nepal (USD 18.85) and Sri Lanka (USD 20.17), all three countries also ranked in the top 20 of the cheapest in the world. The Maldives (USD 86.08), Laos (USD 231.76) and Brunei (UD 267.33) provide the most expensive package price per month.

Mexico is the cheapest country in Central America with an average broadband package cost per month of USD 26.64, Panama being the most expensive with an average package price of USD 112.77 per month.

In North America, Canada offers the cheapest broadband on average (USD 54.92), coming in 21 positions ahead of the United States globally (USD 66.17). Bermuda provides the most expensive packages in the region with an average price of USD 126.80 per month.

Saint-Martin offers the cheapest broadband in the Caribbean, with an average package price of USD 20.72 per month, with the British Virgin Islands (USD 146.05), Antigua and Barbuda (USD 153.78), Cayman Islands (USD 175.27) and Haiti (224.19) at the most expensive end both regionally and globally.

Sub-Saharan Africa fared worst overall with almost all countries in the bottom half of the table. Burkina Faso will charge residential users a staggering USD 954.54 per month for their ADSL. Meanwhile Namibia (USD 432.86), Zimbabwe (USD 170.00) and Mali (USD 163.96) were among the 10 most expensive countries.

All 13 countries in Oceania were found in the most expensive half of the global table. Generally, larger landmasses such as Australia and New Zealand were cheaper than smaller islands in the region. Fiji, however, was actually the cheapest in Oceania with an average cost of USD 57.44. Vanuatu (USD 154.07), Cook Islands (USD 173.57) and Papua New Guinea (USD 597.20) are the most expensive in the region, the latter second-most expensive in the world.

I would be very curious to know what accounts for these results. Is it government policy? Geographic location or size? An abundance of competing ISPs? Perhaps a combination of all three? Or maybe it depends on the specific country?

What are your thoughts?


Luxembourg – Future Space Power?

With a population of less than 600,000 (half of whom are foreign nationals), Luxembourg, which is nestled between France, Germany, and Belgium, is rarely center-stage internationally. Its biggest claim to fame is serving as an infamous tax haven second to Switzerland, and being one of the richest nations in the world (with a GDP per capita of around $100,000).

It is perhaps because of this great wealth and prosperity, as well as its relatively low profile (it maintains a policy of neutrality in most affairs), that this little country is aiming to become the “Silicon Valley of space mining”, to quote the headline of an article in Wired reporting on Luxembourg’s outsized ambitions in space. Continue reading

See the World’s Fishing Fleets in Near Real-Time

Fishing is an ancient practice dating back to at least 40,000 years ago. But like so many other age-old human practices, in the 21st century it has become an industrialized, globalized industry worth billions: on any given day across the world, tens of thousands of fishing boats of every size haul in hundreds of thousands of tons of fish. Close to half a billion people make a living, directly or indirectly, through fisheries and aquaculture (fish farms) in the developing world alone. Continue reading

Should We Fear A.I.?

It is very telling that almost every portrayal of artificial intelligence in science fiction is a cynical one: A.I. is almost always prone to rebelling against, dominating, or otherwise coming into conflict with humanity. Judging by the continued prevalence and widespread acceptance of this trope, it appears that there is an inherent, almost universal perception that A.I. is bad news for our species. Continue reading

Scientists Create First Artificial Neurons

Analogies of the human brain as a sort of organic computer (or visa versa, in the case of artificial intelligence) abounds. But it remains a matter of debate among some circles as to whether a truly thinking machine is feasible, and if so, whether it would operate along the same lines as our biological brains.

According to The Economist, an international team of researchers has bridged the gap between “biological brains and electronic ones”. Continue reading

Unfettered Internet Access Declared a Human Right

This past June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution in June that defines free and open access to the web is a human right and in strong terms “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”.

The four page document, which you can read here (PDF), takes a broad view of the Internet’s importance, from its empowerment of “all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology” to “[facilitating] vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally”. It even affirms how the expansion of telecommunications technology has the “great potential to accelerate human progress”, an observation most denizens of the Internet Age can attest to. Continue reading

What the Popularity of Selfies Says About Our Visual Culture

Love them or hate them, selfies have become something of an icon of the 21st century. Considered the ultimate expression of narcissism and irreverence — especially among the already much-criticized Millennial generation most likely to take them — selfies instead reflect something much deeper and more fascinating about the state of humanity.

I know, it might be hard to believe given how vacuous selfiest seem, but Nicholas Mirzoeff of The Guardian makes a pretty compelling case about the sociological and cultural impact of selfiest and digital media in general. Continue reading